1 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. 2 Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. 3 They shouted to each other, saying:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”
4 The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke.
5 I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the LORD of heavenly forces!”
6 Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”
8 Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”
I said, “I’m here; send me.”
9 God said, “Go and say to this people: Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend. 10 Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so they can’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn, and be healed.”
11 I said, “How long, Lord?”
And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.” 12 The LORD will send the people far away, and the land will be completely abandoned. 13 Even if one-tenth remain there, they will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, which when it is cut down leaves a stump. Its stump is a holy seed.
Last week, we looked at the call and commissioning of Jeremiah. Today, we get the more familiar account of Isaiah’s call. It ought to be familiar because we recite part of this every Sunday in our Communion liturgy.
Isaiah’s call story is different from Jeremiah’s in some ways. First, it’s much more visual than Jeremiah’s, which is more auditory. Isaiah’s calls story is a powerful and vividly described vision-event where he’s transported, apparently, from the temple in Jerusalem to God’s temple in heaven. We can see the event in our mind’s eye as it’s described to us. Or, at least, our minds will do their best to construct in our imaginations something that is, to our feeble human minds, unimaginable.
God appeared to Isaiah in regal brilliance: giving us a truer sense of what the word awesome actually means. God was seated on a high and lofty throne. The edges of God’s robe filled the temple. Imagine if the temple was filled with only the edges of God’s robe, how much more of God’s mightiness remained unseen by Isaiah? Yet, even the edges were this potent, brimming with power and majesty.
The doorframe shook when the Seraphs spoke of God’s holiness and glory, and the house was filled with smoke. It’s a scene that would have made most of us wet our pants, and it seems clear that Isaiah had a reaction that filled him with dread. Isaiah probably assumed he was about to die. After all, God told Moses that no one could see God’s face and live (c.f. Exodus 33:20), and Isaiah was confronted with the sight of God seated on a throne. Maybe the hem of God’s robe blocked Isaiah’s view of God’s face, but the prophet was clearly undone by this encounter.
We should note that it wasn’t a sense of inadequacy on his part that caused Isaiah to cry out, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5 CEB), it was Isaiah’s sense of guilt. He knew that he was guilty of sin, and his people were guilty of sin. There are both individual and social sins of which we are guilty and, when confronted with God’s holiness, Isaiah felt the guilt of his personal and his people’s sin profoundly. We, too, are lost and unclean, no matter how pleasant we think ourselves to be. We are all guilty of individual and corporate sin. In that sense, Isaiah’s dismay could be ours, too.
A Seraph reacted to Isaiah’s cries as if recognizing that a mortal had suddenly appeared in God’s throne room and quickly took action to save Isaiah’s life. The winged creature took a burning coal from the altar and touched it to Isaiah’s lips, apparently cauterizing and burning away Isaiah’s sin.
People often wonder about the coal and what it meant. To me, there’s something sacramental about the coal: a visible sign of invisible grace. That’s what sacraments are: outward and visible signs of God’s inward and invisible grace, and a means by which we receive grace. How God can use physical objects of creation to bear and convey grace is a mystery, but since God has created and is creating all that is, God can use anything as a sacramental means of grace.
The incarnation of Jesus Christ, when God became a human being, is the fullness of this kind of divine action in which something physical bears and conveys what is holy. The incarnation is, itself, a kind of sacrament that conveys God’s merciful grace to us. This cleansing of Isaiah’s sin allowed him to hear the voice of God deliberating, either with God’s self or with the heavenly court, saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8b CEB).
Isaiah, in one of the rarer displays of willing volunteerism to serve as God’s prophet, immediately responds, “I’m here; send me” (Isaiah 6:8 CEB). For Isaiah, forgiveness came from being touched with a burning coal, which enabled him to hear God’s voice. For us, forgiveness comes through the blood of Jesus Christ which washes our sin away. In an odd description, when John the Seer of Revelation asked about the people he saw who were wearing white robes, he was told, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood” (Revelation 7:14 CEB).
Because we have been forgiven of our sins, we are enabled to hear the voice of God calling us to serve. God moves alongside and within us all our lives long. Sometimes God’s calling is gentle, and sometimes it’s like a professional wrestling smackdown, but God is always moving, always prompting, always nudging us with sacramental grace so that we can respond to God’s call with our own raised hand and offering of self.
Sometimes we imagine God as separate and out there somewhere in a so-distant heavenly realm that God must be out of touch and unable or unwilling to show care for humanity or individual humans. Yet, as separated and vastly other as God appears in Isaiah’s vision of glory, the topic of God’s discussion reveals God’s concern for us, the Lord’s creatures whom God crafted in God’s own image. The docket of God’s court-business for the day was—and I would imagine always is—about us. God’s love, care, and concern for us runs deeper than we can possibly imagine. Even the conversations of heaven are about taking care of us.
At the same time, God’s call isn’t always what we expect. It isn’t always simple or easy. When I read the rest of this story, I kind of get the feeling that Isaiah was the eager kid in class who often raised his hand to volunteer before he knew what the job was but, by the time he figures that part out, it’s too late. He’s the one.
The mission to which God calls Isaiah seems confusing to our modern ears. “Go and say to this people: Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend. Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so they can’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn, and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10 CEB). Shouldn’t a prophet’s words open our eyes to God’s will, and help us find new and different paths that lead to faithfulness? Should a prophet help us to hear God’s word so we can understand with our minds and be renewed by God’s grace through repentance? Shouldn’t a prophet’s word—which is God’s word—guide us to comprehend new insights into God’s intention for us and how we can live faithful lives?
Why would God tell Isaiah to make people’s minds dull, our ears deaf, and our eyes blind so we can’t see, hear, or understand and turn away from sin for healing from God? It almost sounds cruel of God.
Yet, God isn’t cruel. For the answer to this strange commission, we need to look deeper into the context of Isaiah’s world. Isaiah tells us that he saw this vision of the Lord in the year of King Uzziah’s death. We know that Uzziah lived, reigned, and died in the 8th century B.C. He died in 742. And, within ten years, the Kingdom of Judah became a tributary state of the Neo-Assyrian Empire under King Tiglath-Pileser III. Although Uzziah’s son, Jotham, inherited a strong government, the Kingdoms of Israel and Aram to Judah’s north began to attack Judah. The Philistines, to Judah’s west, began to raid the Judean countryside. The Kings of Israel and Aram tried to coerce Judah into joining their rebellion against Assyria. Things became a mess very quickly.
There’s a not-so-subtle hint of a deeper spiritual issue in Isaiah’s words. King Uzziah has died, but Isaiah declares that he has seen “the king, the LORD of heavenly forces” (Isaiah 6:5 CEB). This hearkens back to the days of the prophet Samuel, before Israel had a king. The elders of the people gathered before Samuel and said, “‘Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.’ It seemed very bad to Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us,’ so he prayed to the LORD. The LORD answered Samuel, ‘Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods. So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them’” (1 Samuel 8:5-9 CEB).
The reason Israel had a king at all was due to the sin of envy. The people of Israel saw how other nations had kings to rule over them, and Israel wanted to be like them, to look like them, to have that same kind of representative power that a king and organized government conveys. Israel rejected God as their king in favor of a human king.
So, the deeper context of God’s mission for Isaiah to speak is, why would the people listen to the words of a prophet who was sent by the true King of Israel whose kingship they had already rejected? Isaiah would speak the true King’s truth and criticize with the true King’s judgment. But truth and criticism are difficult to accept.
Jesus Christ came as God’s living Word and he quotes God’s word to Isaiah, saying: “This is why I speak to the crowds in parables: although they see, they don’t really see; and although they hear, they don’t really hear or understand. What Isaiah prophesied has become completely true for them: You will hear, to be sure, but never understand; and you will certainly see but never recognize what you are seeing. For this people’s senses have become calloused, and they’ve become hard of hearing, and they’ve shut their eyes so that they won’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears or understand with their minds, and change their hearts and lives that I may heal them. Happy are your eyes because they see. Happy are your ears because they hear” (Matthew 13:13-16 CEB).
We have to wonder whether we are more capable of seeing, hearing, and understanding than the people of Judah were in the days of Isaiah. I would say that we are not—except by the power of God’s grace. Grace opens us up to the possibilities of changing our hearts and minds. God’s merciful grace gives us power to amend our lives. God’s grace enables us to see, to hear, and to begin to comprehend the unimaginable depth of God’s love and care for us. The grace of God offered to us through Jesus Christ, and the grace conveyed to us in and through the sacraments and other means of grace, enable us to turn to God and offer ourselves to God. It is by Gods grace alone that we are able to say with the prophet, “I’m here; send me.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay